New agency performance goals called helpful but incomplete

By Charles S. Clark

February 15, 2012

President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget announced that agency leaders, for the first time, had set objectives “in areas where cross-agency coordination or learning, regular review, and designation of a goal leader are expected to accelerate progress.” Sample cross-agency goals ranged from increasing U.S. exports to reducing the cost of clean energy technologies to aiding veterans.

Some 24 major agencies, in addition, have identified a limited number of two-year targets that are aligned with their strategic goals and objectives, as described on the Office of Management and Budget-run website

Both efforts were deemed welcome but insufficient by many in the relatively small community of lawmakers and scholars who monitor how the Obama team is implementing the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

“The 14 cross-agency priority goals in the president’s budget will help break down government silos and promote greater collaboration on common goals,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told Government Executive. “Doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014 involves nine agencies working together toward this common goal for the first time. I think this is an important step forward.”

Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said, “many of our biggest problems -- think Hurricane Katrina, cybersecurity and anti-terrorism efforts -- require strong, effective collaboration across agency boundaries. The budget contains real progress on this front.” He added the creation of “mature outcome goals,” in which agencies lay out specific targets with associated measures for achieving them, makes it “increasingly clear that the top levels of the administration are taking this seriously, which means that agency leaders are taking this seriously.”

But Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said, on the whole, agencies “have ignored their goals set two years ago and established a new set.”

The fact that the details of the targets -- and any metrics for measuring progress toward reaching them -- have not been posted online, Breul noted, prompted three senators on Feb. 3 to send OMB a letter saying the agency was falling short in implementing data and transparency requirements under the GPRA Modernization Act.

Warner, along with Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Tom Carper, D-Del., analyzed three guidance documents published by OMB since GPRA was signed into law in January 2011 and found "significant statutory requirements that have not yet received adequate focus, but that are critical to the success of the act.”

Among the omissions in OMB’s guidance, they said, are requirements that agencies document on the performance website their efforts to collaborate with other agencies; identify low-priority programs using evidence-based justifications, while explaining how such programs link to agency mission; and consult with Congress before, not after, they set goals and make plans.

In addition, the senators reminded OMB of the law’s mandates for agencies to post quarterly performance data for individual programs; assess whether related programs, regulations and external partners are contributing as anticipated; identify programs in danger of not meeting their goals; and discuss each strategy’s prospects for improvement.

The senators challenged OMB’s assertion that some of this follow-up evaluation of efforts to meet goals is for internal circulation only.

Asked for comment, an OMB spokeswoman said, “continuing to build a culture of performance where we deliver the most for taxpayer dollars is a top priority, and we look forward to working together with Congress toward this common goal.”

Several of the requests the senators made were addressed in the recent budget release, according to OMB, and the information recently posted on will be enhanced over time, though funding limits have slowed the website’s development.

In preparing the cross-agency goals, administration and agency officials communicated with all congressional committees relevant under the act, according to OMB. The administration also set up an agency working group and conducted an interagency meeting and a panel discussion with congressional staffers.

“We look forward to working with the senators to continue engaging with the Hill in the coming years,” the spokeswoman said.

Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and longtime student of government performance, said the new budget’s provisions on implementing the GPRA Modernization Act are “a bigger deal than one might think, if you look at them largely in the context of what had come before.”

Whereas the original 1993 GPRA was specific as to how they were to list their priorities and benchmark progress, “most agencies ended up submitting a large list of priorities, so they really had no priorities,” Light said. The new act is designed to focus on the highest priorities in ways that are useful to the congressional appropriations and budget committees in deciding whether to abandon some objectives. This month’s developments are “a good thing, but not a silver bullet,” he added. “They provide some clarity, but it will take a lot more work than you see reflected.”

By Charles S. Clark

February 15, 2012